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Interview: June 22, 2022

When two teenagers break into a house on a remote lake in search of prescription drugs, what starts as a simple burglary turns into a nightmare for all involved. That’s the intriguing premise of Joshua Moehling’s debut novel, AND THERE HE KEPT HER, a thrilling page-turner that introduces readers to a complicated new hero and forces us to consider the true nature of evil. In this interview conducted by Bookreporter reviewer Ray Palen, Moehling talks about his inspiration for the book, his decision to set the story in a small town, some of his favorite mystery/thriller authors, and his future writing plans. The premise of your debut novel, AND THERE HE KEPT HER, immediately made me think of the film Don’t Breathe and its sequel, as well as the opioid epidemic. What inspired you to write this book?

Joshua Moehling: Ben Packard was the first inspiration. I wanted to write a book about a gay cop in a small, rural town. How did he get there? How did he see himself in the community, and how was he perceived by others? We had a real-life case here in Minnesota where a man murdered two teenagers who had broken into his home. My book is not a fictionalized account of that, but the case made me ask a lot of why and what if questions until I came up with Emmett and his chronic pain and his basement full of horrors.

BRC: In the first chapter, readers are introduced to two teenagers who break into a house in search of prescription drugs. What kind of research did you do regarding the opioid crisis?

JM: Almost none. It’s not really a story about the opioid crisis. I needed a reason for this old man to be targeted repeatedly. Prescription drugs fit the bill.

BRC: Why did you set this story in the small town of Sandy Lake? Why not a more urban setting like Minneapolis?

JM: I’ve lived in small towns at various points in my life. I’ve always been interested in how blurry the line is between public and private in a small town, and how people sometimes will look the other way or embrace the non-conforming in the interest of keeping the peace. Small towns have secrets because people are willing to keep those secrets.

BRC: Sandy Lake is filled with so many unique characters, oftentimes set at odds with one another. Which of Sandy Lake’s residents do you find most compelling and why?

JM: Gary was the most fun to write. He has had a wild life and has some stories to tell. AND THERE HE KEPT HER is the first in a series. I was hoping to create a stable of core characters with backgrounds and personalities that I can continue to mine in future books.

BRC: Mystery/thriller novels are not known for gay detectives or gay men as main characters leading the search. How did Ben Packard come to be?

JM: I wrote a book before this set in Sandy Lake. It had a deputy in one scene who was later referred to as being gay by the main character and his friend in rather crude terms. That book hit the wall with agents due to structural problems that I had no idea how to fix. I was still intrigued by the small town I’d created, its inhabitants and this gay deputy, so I started over and wrote another book.

BRC: How much does Packard’s past experience in Sandy Lake impact his ability to work the case of the missing teens in the present?

JM: Packard’s missing brother and his family’s experience with that is one of the reasons he chose to become a police officer. His perception of what happened back then (when he was just a boy) is that law enforcement didn’t care enough or search hard enough for his brother. When a disappearance touches his family again, Packard is determined to get answers this time, at the risk of making promises he can’t keep.

BRC: Unlike your typical small town filled with eccentric individuals, AND THERE HE KEPT HER features complex, fully fleshed-out characters no matter how small of a role they play in the novel, which is far from typical. How did this help drive the narrative of the story?

JM: I think rich characters make the rather routine work of a police investigation more interesting. It’s all about who he meets and how they act or react. 

BRC: Can you talk about your writing process? What challenges did you face as a first-time novelist, and how were you able to overcome them?

JM: It took several books and many years to get to the finished product. I didn’t have a plan when I sat down to write this book, which resulted in many rewrites. Even more after it went out on submission and we were reacting to feedback from editors who ultimately walked away. It was exhausting and heartbreaking at times. I overcame the issues by not losing sight of the goal, which was to be a published author. It helped having a good agent and finally landing with a great publisher and editor.

BRC: Who are some of your favorite authors? Did any of their works influence you during the writing process?

JM: There’s a long list of thriller and mystery writers who call or called Minnesota home: John Sandford, Ellen Hart, Brian Freeman and William Kent Krueger, to name but a few. I’ve read and enjoyed them all. I learned a lot about pacing and incorporating humor and how to get in and out of scenes by reading Sandford’s Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers books.

BRC: AND THERE HE KEPT HER is an intense reading experience. What do you have planned for a follow-up, and will there be more stories set in Sandy Lake?

JM: The second Ben Packard book is written and will be out next June. There will be at least one more after that. How many more after that one remains to be seen.